"Hey, Rob! Are you receiving my Weekly Sales Thought every week?" One of six moments in my life I'd like to have back. (I'm not telling what the other five are. Don't ask.) Sounds pretty benign EXCEPT (1) this was my opening question while meeting a prospective client in the hallway of a conference who was (2) already engaged in conversation with my friend, David, and (3) backpedaling because I had launched myself ‘round a corner into the hall like a SWAT-team. "Freeze! Everybody DOWN! Put your hands UP!"

David, quick on his feet, gracefully saved me, Rob, and the conversation with a quick riposte that had us all laughing at my blunder.

Conferences and meetings are a blast when we know a lot of people and challenging when we don’t. [No kidding, right? “Yo, hey Rob….”] Herein, five ways to ease the pain and conversation.

1. Develop a list of two or three questions you want to answer through your participation at the event. [Note: This list should be in ADDITION to, “Do you have an open purchase order to buy products I’m selling?”]

2. Build your reservoir of current information. Get to a couple of currently-playing movies. Read about music, science, and the latest developments with President Sarkozy’s new wife in The New York Times, The Economist, or The Financial Times on line or on paper. You can generate conversation by asking, “What do you think of…..?” or “What have you heard about…..?” or “What is your experience with…..? or “Can you believe that…?”

3. Develop a couple of general conversation starter questions. For example, when meeting someone new, lead with a common ground statement regarding the occasion or location and then ask a related open-ended question. For example, “Lovely sunset, eh?” followed by “What are you hoping to learn while you’re at this conference?” or “What did you think about the last speaker?” or “How could I help you best while we’re talking?”

4. Develop one or two shameless yet disguised “transition questions” that will bridge the conversation into areas that provide hints for sales opportunities. Example: “You know, I wanted to ask you about something: One of the trends we see is ___. How are you thinking about that at your company?”

5. Prepare the all important exit lines in advance so you can move on gracefully, avoiding an out of body experience while the nitwit you’ve just met attaches to you for a good drone on.

A good exit line has two elements: (1) compliment and (2) transition. For example,

Compliment: (smiling) “I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you about your marketing program.”

Transition: “Let’s pick another time to continue.” Or, “Which presentation are you going to next?…. Great, I’ll see you in the room.” Or, clutching your waist and looking panicked, “Gosh, the chicken we had for lunch isn’t agreeing with me. Would you excuse me?” [This works virtually every time and can have the added benefit of inducing faint nausea in your conversation partner.]

If you need a prompt, write your questions and exit lines on a 3 x 5 card you carry in your pocket and to which you refer from time to time to keep yourself on track.

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